Title: Misery Loves Comedy
Director: Kevin Pollak
Major Players: Larry David, Judd Apatow, Steve Coogan + more
Out Of Five: 3
Did you know that Tom Hanks had done stand-up? No, neither did I, but if he hadn’t Kevin Pollak would have had difficulty in including him in the documentary Misery Loves Comedy. Hanks shared the stage with a microphone years ago, before making it as an actor, and did it again in preparation for an earlier movie, Punchline (1988). So he speaks from experience.
As, indeed, does pretty much everybody else in the film, which is released on digital today. It includes Pollak himself, whe started out as a stand-up and is more familiar from his appearances in front of the camera on TV and in the cinema, The Usual Suspects (1995) for one. Here, though, he’s behind the camera, interviewing some of the biggest names in comedy from the USA and UK about the art of stand up and whether a comedian has to be miserable to be funny. It’s a familiar enough premise, but has never become a cliché because it contains more than a grain of truth, a truth that’s resulted in tragedy.
There’s a whole list of questions leading up to the ultimate: what it feels like to bomb, parental influences, learning through experience and what Pollak himself describes as the “hey, look at me!” syndrome, something that isn’t just confined to comedians. And the line of people he interviews along the way is both massive and star-studded. Steve Coogan, Jon Favreau, Judd Apatow, Bobby Cannavale, Larry David, Sam Rockwell …… they’re all in there, together with the occasional non-comedian like William H Macey, who admits with endearing frankness that he “wouldn’t do it with a gun to my head.”
For anybody who likes the talking head approach to documentaries and hearing performers analyse and talk about their work, this is pure pleasure from start to finish. Pollak makes a great interviewer (we sometimes hear his voice from behind the camera) putting his subjects at ease so that they chat in a relaxed and informal way. There is, inevitably, a certain amount of back-slapping and the dreaded ego creeps in from time to time, but not enough to overshadow the performers, their anecdotes and the occasional spontaneous banter with the director.
And some of them are priceless, of the real laugh out loud variety. Stephen Merchant relates his effort to appear cool and unimpressed at meeting Steve Coogan for the first time – and how it completely misfired. Christopher Guest recalls playing a Spinal Tap concert in front of an utterly unresponsive Canadian crowd. And Lewis Black (the voice of Anger in Inside Out) tells how he bombed so badly one night that a heckler told him to “go home and gargle with razor blades!” There’s others: a prosthetic leg thrown onto the stage which became part of the act, a young Judd Apatow duping famous comedians into letting him interview them, Steve Coogan on his embarrassing dad ………..
But if you’re not into watching performers talk about themselves and their art, you’ll probably find this harder going. And, in truth, Pollak does take his time in getting to that question about misery and comedy. Too much time. He gets away with it because his subjects are endearing and entertaining and, at times, refreshingly frank. By the time the number one question arrives, the answers are not wholly unexpected.
There are moments of real insight, digging deeper into the misery side of the question and, as the credits roll, there’s the acknowledgement of that darker side, with a dedication of the film to the memory of the late Robin Williams. It’s something of a no-brainer but not insincere and means that, after the laughter, you’re given something more serious to think about.
Misery Loves Comedy is released on digital today, 19 October, and will be available on DVD on 2 November.